Thursday 31 December 2015

A year in pictures

Well that went quickly. It seems like only yesterday I was composing another Tolstoy-esque epic review of the year. Blogging has been a bit more erratic over the last twelve months, but the therapeutic power of watching and photographing wildlife has rarely been more needed than in 2015 - it proved to be a pretty demanding year professionally, which limited both the energy and opportunity I had for getting out and about. A less than perfect summer rather put the mockers on some butterfly photography I had hoped to spend time on with a new camera and lens acquired in the summer, but fortunately the birds seemed to empathise, and many of the year's best rarities appeared at the weekend enabling me to see and photograph some highly desirable species. Some stats, highlights and favourite photos below.

January highlights
Hen Harrier, Middlbere: a much persecuted breeding species whose plight became a conservation cause célèbre in 2015
Blyth's Pipit, West Yorkshire: a consolation for missing out on the Fraisthorpe Little Bustard
Richard's Pipit, Dorset: a good year for rare pipits, this was my second of 2015
Ticks: 2015 was a remarkably good year for my British list, which started the year on 443 species but broke through the 450 barrier in style to end the year on 452. Many of 2015s rare birds turned up at convenient times or stuck around long enough for me to catch up with them. The best spring for accessible rarities in many years saw me heading to Bryher in April for a Great Blue Heron. The following weekend a Hudsonian Godwit on the Somerset levels was only slightly less rare but much easier to get to, and I was sufficiently quick off the blocks to see it and be back home before anyone had really missed me.

February highlights
Kumlien's Gull, West Sussex: returning to Littlehampton for its second winter in a brief stay - I jammed in on this bird on the way back from seeing my sister in Brighton
Drake Pintail, Suffolk: one of many highlights of a family half-term holiday in East Anglia
Waxwing, Suffolk: another highlight of the East Anglia trip
May was kind to me with a summer plumaged male Red-throated Pipit tempting me up to the Peak District - the furthest I travelled for a new bird this year - a very attractive individual, and worth the effort, despite not matching some of the year's other birds for mega-rarity. If May was kind, June was absurdly generous with a hat-trick of new birds: in reverse order of ease with which they were seen, there was the Bardsey Cretzschmar's Bunting, the Pagham Hudsonian Whimbrel and, at the same site, a Terek Sandpiper, which had become a bit of a bogey bird for me. A series of pelagic trips in August then capped the lot with the once in a lifetime experience of having an exquisite Fea's Petrel circle our boat for four memorable minutes near the Seven Stones lightship.

March highlights
Penduline Tit, Devon: one of a long-staying trio at Dart's Farm
Black-necked Grebe, Dorset: one of two at Longham Lakes
Bonaparte's Gull, Dorset: gave me the runaround at first but reappeared at Radipole for an extended stay
After another slightly frustrating October, it looked like the Fea's Petrel might be my last new bird of 2015, but I've been saying for years that November is the new October, and so it seemed when the Chesterfield Crag Martin remained long enough for me to photograph it at the second attempt. The addition of Northern Harrier from the armchair just before Christmas was a nice bonus particularly as it becomes a new species on the Dorset list too. That certainly reduced any urge to dash off to Shetland for a Boxing Day Mourning Dove, a bird I would love to see, but in a location I still have limited appetite for twitching. Mind you, after last year's Bridled Tern on Inner Farne, the Bryher Great Blue Heron and the Bardsey Bunting, my self-imposed 'not twitching islands' rule does seem to have been more honoured in the breach in recent years...

April highlights
Garganey, Dorset: an approachable drake at Longham Lakes
Greater Yellowlegs, Hampshire: a mad dash for this bird proved unnecessary as it stayed for months and is still present on the Isle of Wight
Great Blue Heron, Bryher: 2nd record for Britain
Hudsonian Godwit: probably only the 3rd individual seen in Britain
Dips: happily, a very short entry this year. The only one to speak of was the New Year Little Bustard and even then I didn't go all the way to East Yorkshire, baling out at Calder Park for a consolation Blyth's Pipit when news came through that the Bustard had gone.

May highlights
Red-footed Falcon, Dorset: a female just a short walk from home
Red-throated Pipit, Greater Manchester/Derbyshire
Displaying Gannets were a highlight of a May trip to Bempton, East Yorkshire
Regrets: there were, of course, other birds I would have dearly loved to have seen but couldn't get away for: as with the Bustard, being 'on call' prevented me from leaving Dorset for the Citril Finch; officiating at my wife's birthday ruled out a crack at the New Forest Black-eared Wheatear; and a misplaced sense of professional duty got in the way of a mid-week dash to Kent for the Acadian Flycatcher. Had I been blessed with three clear days I would have been tempted to break the island rule again for the Wilson's Warbler, but it wasn't to be. The fact that at least two of these temptations were resisted by reason of family loyalty will, I hope, go some way to dispelling the idea which seems to have taken root among some readers of this blog that I am an utterly feckless father and husband. To put the record straight, I am, at worst, a moderately feckless father and husband.

June highlights
White-winged Black Tern, Dorset: patch bird of the year at Swineham
Husdonian Whimbrel, West Sussex: twitched after work one evening
Cretzschmar's Bunting, Bardsey: my most epic twitch of 2015
The County list: having moved to Dorset in 2007, there is still the odd 'easy' addition to my Dorset list to be had (Golden Oriole and Tawny Pipit in 2015) but as diminishing returns kick in, my previously swift progress towards 300 species seen in the County has slowed noticeably with just 6 additions in 2015, bringing the total to 292. On the upside, the additions now are tending to be of higher quality: a Red-footed Falcon a short walk from home in Wareham was a highlight, closely followed by the county's first Bonaparte's Gull for some time, and the second Western Bonelli's Warbler in two years - the 2014 bird which I missed being the first for 37 years.

Scilly pelagic highlights
Balearic Shearwater, near Seven Stones
A Wilson's Petrel was a key target of four Sapphire pelagics out of St Mary's...
...but this Fea's Petrel was more than we had hoped for
The Photo Yearlist: well the year isn't quite over so there will be a separate post on that in due course. Suffice to say the aim wasn't really to break any records, but to provide an extra impetus to get out and about when lethargy beckoned. And it sort of worked!

August highlights

Redstart in the garden of our idyllic holiday cottage in North Wales

Pied Flycatcher, St Mary's: a migrant on the island in August
Western Bonelli's Warbler, Portland: a Dorset grip back after missing last year's bird
The Patch: the less said about this the better. Another White-winged Black Tern, our third in three years, was the undoubted, possibly the sole, highlight, and more than I deserved for precious little effort invested. My Christmas wish for some more bird-friendly land management at this site seems more fanciful with every visit. Moving swiftly on then...

September highlights
Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Dorset: a charming bird near Ringstead
Firecrest at Middlebere, Dorset
Peregrine, Hampshire: spooking the waders at Keyhaven
Rare bird of the Year: for sheer photogenicity, a Red-backed Shrike on Portland in October was right up there, closely followed by the Wareham Red-foot, my Dorset bird of the year for sure. Among the mega-rarities, the Great Blue Heron would have been in with a shout had it not been eclipsed by the other stars of a stellar spring, and the Cretzschmar's Bunting might also have claimed the crown but for the hell it put us through before making an appearance. So for its beauty and rarity, and the slimness of the chances of enjoying such a close encounter, my personal bird of the year has to be the Fea's Petrel. A special bird to bring up 450 on my British list.

October highlights
Ring Ouzel, Dorset: a berry-gorger at Middlebere
Red-backed Shrike, Dorset: a photogenic juvenile on Portland
Pallas's Warbler, Dorset: the highlight of an October visit to Winspit
Best birding day of 2015: quite a few to chose from: a Dorset bird race day in August, twitches for the Great Blue Heron, the Cretzschmar's Bunting and the Pacific Diver with friends; a solo trip to East Yorkshire and Lincolnshire in May; and days out on the North Norfolk coast and at Pagham Harbour with Claire and the boys. For the full package though - good weather, a family day out and a 'tick', it has to be an impromptu Father's Day twitch to Pagham for the Terek Sandpiper.

November highlights
Great White Egret, Dorset: a flyover at Middlebere
Crag Martin, Derbyshire: around Chesterfield's famous crooked spire
Crag Martin
As well as good birds I have enjoyed some good company over the last twelve months with old and new friends lift-sharing, co-driving, navigating etc - so if I fell asleep in your passenger seat or wittered at you to keep myself awake while you were trying to catch forty winks yourself, a big thank you for being there...

December highlights
Pale-bellied Brent Goose, Dorset: a juvenile at Studland
Siberian Chiffchaff, Dorset: a long-staying bird at Portland Castle
Crossbill, Dorset: a male in Wareham Forest
So if you're still awake/sober after all that, it only remains for me to wish you a Happy New Year and to say thanks for reading. No resolutions this year, though if you promise to come back, I'll try to keep pumping this trash out in 2016.

Wednesday 30 December 2015


Since reports of the returning Pacific Diver off Newlyn started up again in November, I had been harbouring (no pun intended) thoughts of another trip to Cornwall to look for it, having first seen this bird back in 2011. James Lowen had hatched a plan to hook up with another Norfolk based birder, Nick Watmough, meeting up with Rob Williams in Somerset en route to Cornwall. Others had pulled out so there was room in the car for me, and we met on Monday morning for the onward trek to Penzance in the Exeter suburbs before the townsfolk had stirred.
Great Northern Diver, Newlyn Harbour
Great Northern Diver, Newlyn Harbour
I had photographed the Pacific Diver very poorly in 2011, but seeing Ben Porter's photos from earlier this year I was hopeful that I might improve on my earlier efforts. The forecast was for high winds in Penzance but the journey down didn't seem too bad so I was optimistic that the sea state wouldn't make viewing conditions too difficult. I was about to voice this thought as we rounded the high wall of Penzance Harbour when a wave broke on the seawall and doused the car in heavy salt spray. Hmm, not ideal for finding divers, let alone one with only subtle differences from the more familiar Black-throated.

Great Northern Diver, Carnsew Pool

Great Northern Diver, Carnsew Pool
I have written before about the different dietary requirements which birders exhibit on a long day out. James is definitely a feeder, and the itinerary seemed to revolve around favoured eateries, with a bit of birding thrown in to break up our stately progress between them. A strategy I was not entirely unhappy with, as while not a big eater, early starts do bring out the glutton in me and require a regular intake of carbs. So with the benefit of a 'healthy' breakfast pre-dawn, we just had to while away a few hours birding until the pasty shops opened.
Pacific Diver - slightly smaller than Black-throated Diver - here showing a hint of a chinstrap
A white 'thigh' patch would be visible on Black-throated Diver
We headed first for Newlyn, and the first unidentified divers we saw through wind-battered scopes did nothing to dispel the sense that this wasn't going to be easy. Eventually, however, we got our eye in, found a reasonably sheltered viewpoint and with an improvement in the light were soon picking out Great Northern, Red-throated and Black-throated Divers in the heavy swell of St Mounts Bay.
Even in these distant shots a rounded head profile and small, spiky bill can be seen
The 237th species I have photographed in Britain in 2015
Making our way eastwards back to the Jubilee Pool, there was still no sign of our main target, and numbers of other divers also seemed to have tailed off, so we headed back west to the far side of Newlyn in the hope of improving our prospects. This proved an inspired move as after an extended period of scanning, during which an unseasonal Storm Petrel and a Great Skua were seen, Rob eventually pinned down the Pacific Diver. Fortunately it spent several minutes continuously on the surface, swimming towards us and roll-preening so everyone could get onto it. With a little imagination (and a 60x zoom), a chinstrap could be made out and, just as importantly, the white flank patch of Black-throated Diver was notable by its absence.
This fishing fleet in Newlyn Harbour
St Michael's Mount through the entrance of Newlyn Harbour
With four species of diver seen by lunchtime, there was time to potter around Cornwall in search of more photogenic fowl. A Great Northern Diver in the calm waters of Newlyn Harbour didn't quite play ball, but another in Carnsew Pool was more accommodating. We stumbled across this having taken a wrong turn into a new Asda (because, let's face it, another mega-supermarket is just what west Cornwall needs). We were, of course, searching for pastry, but the Diver offered some consolation. The onset of squally showers increased the urgency of finding a pasty shop, from whence we headed back up the A30 for a quick stop at Dozmary Pool and another returning rarity, a Lesser Scaup. Finding this remote spot completely devoid of a Greggs, we quickly photographed the Lesser Scaup and returned to the A30 to head home.
Drake Lesser Scaup at Dozmary Pool
#238 for the photo yearlist
So a pretty good day all told, with erudite company, fine dining and the added bonus of not having to drive all the way.
(From top to bottom: me, James, Rob. 'On your bellies for a loon' tweets Nick. 'But only the middle loon is showing flank patches' replies Rob. Photo copyright Nick Watmough. Thanks to all three for a great day.)